Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Two: Penguin One, Us Zero – ***
Part One: Who is this Lady?
We learn a lot in this episode, namely that Wayne, leader of the unnamed cult Tommy’s a part of, is a serial rapist and also thinks he’s Jesus. Neither of these are so far off the mark from how Wayne was presented in the first episode that the news is difficult to swallow, though. I may give a deeper discussion of Wayne in a later review, but he’s pretty one-dimensional as far as characters go; he’s framed as a cryptic authority figure whose acting, dialogue, and framing by the camera instill a sense of unease in the audience, and that continues into this episode. The Feds raid Wayne’s cabin but he gets away, leaving Tommy to look after Christine, the girl from the compound he was flirting with in the previous episode. Tommy murders an investigator when he threatens Christine, then Wayne tasks him with protecting her.
Tommy, like Wayne, is not especially interesting. He avoids his father’s calls (though also calls him, for some reason) and has no contact with the rest of his family, seeming to be somewhere further west for most of the start of the season. He likes Christine and trusts Wayne, but aside from that and implied past trouble that may be related to his family or watching some classmates jump from a building at college, Tommy doesn’t have a lot going for him. Like many twenty-something white boys, Tommy seems mainly driven by his dick, his trust in Wayne seeming to only stem from a desire to remain close to Christine (a yikes dynamic if ever I saw one). His subplot opens the episode, and Wayne claims to have an understanding of what’s going on, but I’m disinclined to trust the show on this level given the ambiguity it’s presented so far.
I kind of expect this to be a plot thread that exists mainly to pull the rug out from under those who, like the characters, seek order to the narrative’s chaos. If it turns out Wayne does have an insight into the disappearances in a supernatural way, that feels like it would undermine the point of this plot.
Murder aside, this is a fairly mundane episode. It mainly concerns the characters wandering about town and bumping shoulders with one another. We get introduced to a few female characters and thus begins the endless struggle to figure out who the hell any given female character in a scene is. A white, brunette lady who may have been introduced from the last episode and may be Nora Durst or may be someone else entirely tries to join the Guilty Remnant. I have absolutely no idea what this person’s name is, whether this is a flashback, or what her relationship to any of the other characters is. Context clues suggest she’s someone new and unrelated to the other characters in the series, though why she’s given her own point-of-view in that case is beyond me.
Seriously, though, half of the female characters in this series look pretty damn near identical and the show rarely stops to clarify who a new character is. It gets to be really aggravating, since characters are introduced haphazardly and it’s often difficult to tell who the character of focus in a scene is. I was convinced for a long time that the senator in the first episode was going to be the person of focus for the Wayne subplot because of the way he was framed. He doesn’t even show up again.
Anyway, the lady who joins the Guilty Remnant sets to work with Lorie, being initiated into the group slowly and pushed to do menial tasks that seem to have no purpose. She questions what the group’s interests are, which Lorie doesn’t answer. Lorie insists that it isn’t a cult, and implies that there’s something deeper to their purpose. Of course, that’s not exactly a reliable assessment given the biases of its source.
Meanwhile, Jill follows the verified Nora Durst (and the fact that I still can’t tell whether Nora’s the same person as the other myriad white brunette women should be indicative) around town with her goofball friends. Nora Durst was introduces as a speaker for a memorial event in the previous episode, having lost her entire family to the supernatural event. They learn she’s carrying a gun in her purse and convince Jill to break into her car out of dumb teenage curiosity, but Jill calls it off when her friends try to get her caught. She steals stale jellybeans from Nora’s car and after passing them around, suggests that Nora had originally bought them for her kids.
Jill has hints of deeper character, showing some compassion in burying the dog in the first episode and now here in guilt-tripping her friends about the jellybeans. However, at the moment that really only seems to go as far as her wanting to break out of her good girl exterior and not really knowing how to do that in a constructive way. Like many teenagers, she succumbs quickly to peer pressure and often gets roped into things she doesn’t seem to like much. She’s surly around her father and shows more sympathy than he does for her mother, but her interrelationships with the family, and her specific relationships with her friends, haven’t been extensively explored.
Nora, meanwhile, is one of the more immediately intriguing characters of the story. She’s the subject of a lot of gossip having lost her whole family, a rarity even when most people know at least one person who’s gone missing. She shows little impact from the event or how people treat her because of it, and conducts dry, systematic interviews of those who have lost loved ones to collect data on the people who have gone missing. She hasn’t become much of a player in the story, but she certainly has enough baggage to make a potentially versatile character.
Part Two: I Like the Bagels
Kevin probably gets the most focus of all of the characters in this episode, brought in by his coworkers after he was found shooting dogs with the mysterious bald man at night. He recounts his story, frustrated by the lack of evidence that the other man was there and wondering throughout the episode whether he was even real. Kevin has vivid, surreal nightmares that occasionally seem to merge with reality like portents. The show is cryptic about whether these visions may be supernatural in nature or are simply the first signs of an unnamed mental disorder. His father was institutionalized for the latter shortly after the disappearances, so most of Kevin’s coworkers are concerned that he’s losing his grip on reality.
As the episode continues and the mystery man’s car shows up in Kevin’s driveway, Kevin begins to suspect that he may be hallucinating. He goes to speak with his father, the former chief of police, and asks how it started for him. Kevin’s father insists that he’s perfectly fine, despite visibly talking with unseen figures. This encounter does little to quell Kevin’s fears, until his father mentions the voices sent someone to help him. This piques Kevin’s interest and further confounds the nature of the hallucinations to the audience.
Given that this series is based around a moderately large cast and the pacing is often on the slower side, Kevin’s contribution to the episode is fairly simple. I like it, though. I like his concerns about shooting dogs and how that exceedingly bizarre act from the first episode comes back to haunt him, building as it should in an episodic series. Kevin’s father is another fairly straightforward archetype with limited depth, but I like the performance and line deliveries Scott Glenn gives. There’s a sincerity to the scene with the two men talking about mental illness that I think the rest of the series struggles to capture.
This is also the first time the series has really introduced the sort of detail work and intrigue I’ve been hoping it would. Kevin’s father isn’t allowed to have food unless he eats it fully during the visit. This is a bit of an odd thing given the health clinic he’s been imprisoned at is a low-security facility and Kevin’s father isn’t dangerous enough to need a guard, but it’s not outlandish for the purposes of the narrative. When it comes back at the end of the episode, though, it becomes far more interesting. While digging through a broken microwave, Kevin finds a bagel like the one he gave his father lodged between the panels. Suddenly, the interaction becomes duplicitous and Kevin’s father becomes a much more confusing individual. He expresses dislike for the facility, even though it’s homely, but his motives for breaking out or causing chaos are curious. He claims to have a greater calling and suggests the same is true of Kevin, but these are also the moments where he seems the least stable.
It’s not much of a mystery, only given two outcomes — Kevin’s father being some sort of prophet or else just an old fart who’s off his rocker — but the way it’s presented and the incorporation of what would otherwise be a throwaway atmospheric line work. I have a weakness for physical representations of mental processes, and I like unusual objects being incorporated into the plot in creative ways. Why bagels? Why the microwave? I like that I can’t think of an easy solution to the specifics of these questions. It makes me want to seek out the answers.
Part Three: Those Strings
I think this show runs on moments. It does those really well. It has an eye for its more important and humanizing scenes that makes considerable effort in the visuals, pacing, and especially the sound. In this episode, those moments come mainly in Kevin discovering the bagel, Jill suggesting the jellybeans she stole were for Nora’s kids, and the new recruit for the Guilty Remnant returning to cut down the tree after working at it for hours with no progress.
I’ve already harped on the music (pun very much intended, even though I don’t think any of the score uses harps), but it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite aspects of the series. It’s easy to underestimate the positive effect of a powerful score when it’s well-matched to the scenes it plays over. The scene where the Guilty Remnant recruit returns to cut down the tree has an especially powerful score that’s similar in style to the opening theme, but clearly a unique piece of music.
As before, the editing and cinematography are the weak points. I’m having difficulty pinning down precisely what I dislike about them, but whatever tone they’re going for, it acts in direct opposition to the tone of the rest of the series. I’ve noticed that a lot of the shots are far too short and unfocused for them to communicate anything important, particularly when a character sees or notices something. This means it’s very easy to miss seemingly important information and I’ve found myself constantly having to rewind.
The worst offenders are pieces of writing. The Guilty Remnant, who only communicate through legal pads, are easy to understand most of the time, but occasionally the camera will show signs, flyers, newspaper clippings, or name tags for half of a second and then cut away. This wouldn’t be an issue if the object or writing of interest were shown later, but it’s frequently never shown again.
This is such a bizarre choice that I can’t entirely invent a plausible explanation for why the series does this. I’m thinking it may be a technical issue, like many of the shots had to be shortened to fit the runtime, but even that’s a stretch. The episodes are probably longer than they need to be at around 55 minutes, but there are plenty of shots or even entire scenes that could be cut without sacrificing as much material as obfuscating critical close-ups does.
The editing is really starting to bother me, as it rarely comes at appropriate moments in the structure or rhythm of a scene and often seems unnecessary. The series favors regular cuts with very few long or medium takes except during reaction moments that hold on characters’ faces. This is pretty standard for thrillers and action series, but for a drama, especially one that can be this steady and deliberate, moderately rapid cutting can be very distracting. It works when the tension is high — the editing isn’t bad for Kevin’s dream sequences, where the jarring shift from one setting to the other makes sense. However, used elsewhere, disparate and sudden cuts are disorienting, especially if the new scene omits establishing shots to ground the audience. I get that this may be intended to immerse the audience in the disorientation of the characters, but it also happens to make the show physically more difficult to watch, which tends to have the opposite effect.
For the moment, the better scenes and the cohesive aesthetics — particularly the music — are pulling me through, but I don’t know that I’ll have much praise for the editing unless it steps up its game.